Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Walk to Beautiful

Earlier this month, I alerted you that I'd been working on a couple of posts having to do with women's health issues (see take #7 here).

This is the first.

It may be difficult to read. It was definitely difficult to write. But please stay, even if it's not clear right away how it applies to you or your life.


You are a 14-year-old girl. You've never been to school. You were married to a man in a neighboring village at age 13 — before your first menstrual period — and six months later, you became pregnant. Now you are in labor with your first child.

Labor has already lasted for three days, but still the baby has not come...

L. Lewis Wall, Jesus and the Unclean Woman, Christianity Today, Jan. 13, 2010
view A Walk to Beautiful online

Joining a film midway through without knowing the title or the subject can be a real adventure.

One evening about a year ago, I was channel surfing and I happened across a documentary called A Walk to Beautiful.

I could tell the film was about women in Africa with a somewhat common debilitating condition, but I couldn't figure out what that condition was.

But I've visited Africa, and I'm a woman. Those two sympathies, plus my curiosity, kept me tuned in.

As I watched, I kept hearing a word I'd never heard before: fistula. I gathered that it had something to do with childbirth and long labor. Since that is a topic I have some experience with, I listened intently.

The film talked about how the condition — which affects two to three million women worldwide — makes women into social outcasts, unable to work or bear children, discarded by their husbands and families and ostracized by their communities.

The next day, I looked up the word:

When a woman endures prolonged labor while giving birth, her bladder or rectal tissue rips or tears, forming a fistula, a hole between her birth passage and internal organs. A simple surgery costing $300 can fix the problem, but without access to care — 90 percent of fistula sufferers live in the developing world — the woman is left incontinent, unable to have children, and stigmatized in her family and community.

Elissa Cooper, A Walk to Beautiful: A Must-See Film, Her.meneutics, Jan. 29, 2010
No wonder I wasn't familiar with the condition — it's an uncommon occurrence in areas with readily available obstetric care. It's an epidemic, but a hidden one, because those it affects are poor, obscure, and female — triply voiceless.

A couple of weeks ago, Her.meneutics ran an article about Catherine Hamlin, the physician whose work is featured in the documentary, calling her the Mother Teresa of our age. At first, I thought the author was indulging in a little journalistic hyperbole with that title.

But the more I read and thought about the condition and its social and psychological effects on a person, I realized how appropriate that title is. These women are society's outcasts, pariahs, just as much as the people with whom Mother Teresa worked.

With VVF [vesicovaginal fistula], the first goal is to treat the physical body, but Hamlin and her staff also find themselves administering emotional and spiritual healing. “They think that God has cursed them. They’re so terribly ashamed of this condition,” Hamlin says. Women are thrown out by their husbands. One unknown statistic is how many women with VVF commit suicide. Hamlin remembers one story of a girl who was brought in by her uncle after he saved her from hanging herself.

“Once they get through the gate, their attitude changes,” Hamlin says. “They come with downcast eyes and ashamed to look up, and then they see somebody with the same condition. They think they were the only ones.”

Elissa Cooper, 'Mother Teresa of Our Age' Talks to Her.meneutics, March 16, 2011
Now 87, Dr. Hamlin is working and praying to eradicate obstetric fistula by the end of this century.

I'm praying to that end as well.


As a side note:
March is National Women's History Month.

Last year, I wrote about women in history who spoke up for the vulnerable and voiceless. Looks like I did it again.

Dr. Catherine Hamlin is making history.


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